Mike Watt is at once impossibly rock star–cool and also the most ordinary guy you could hope to meet. Having made his name as bassist with San Pedro punks The Minutemen and alt-rockers Firehose, before spending a decade with The Stooges, Watt has earned his swagger. It’s a discernible swagger, too, whether he's walking, talking or performing onstage. In conversation, he swings around a sentence as if it’s an improvised jazz piece, going wherever the words take him. He’s grounded and honest, and frankly fun to talk to. He’s also ludicrously busy, with a multitude of projects currently on the go (Watt lost count at seven).
“The Secondmen is the easiest band for me to play with, as the other two guys also live in Pedro," Watt says. "On this tour with X, I’ll be performing with The Secondmen even though it says ‘Mike Watt’ on the poster. ... I don’t like it because it makes it look like the other guys are second-class citizens or something. I called my album in 2004 The Secondman’s Middle Stand because when I was sick, every second felt like an hour. It has nothing to do with those guys being 'second men.'”
As Watt says, The Secondmen are one of his current projects — the main band that he plays with often at punk-rock joints around town such as Cafe NELA (where they'll appear this weekend), and the band he’ll be performing with on this current tour with L.A. punk pioneers X. It is, as Watt points out, very much a band, despite the tendency of promotors to just put Watt’s name on the posters.
Watt is modest enough to feel a little uncomfortable with the bulk of the attention, even if The Secondmen are clearly his band and their set lists are mainly composed of songs that are, for all intents and purposes, Minutemen rejects.
“These Secondmen songs I’ve had for a long time,” Watt says. “I wrote most of them during the Minutemen days, but D. Boon" — Watt's partner in Minutemen, who was killed in a car accident in 1985 — "didn’t think they were good enough, or he wasn’t feeling them. I dusted them off.”
Watt has been kicking off his Secondmen sets with a cover of The Stooges’ “Little Doll,” which serves as a nod to his past in two ways. Obviously, he’s tipping a hat to the 10 years he spent as a Stooge. Prior to that though, when Watt fell ill in 2000 with an infection that required emergency surgery and nine weeks of bedrest, he had to work hard to regain his strength, and that song was a big help.
“‘Little Doll’ is a song that means a lot to me,” Watt says. “When I was sick and then recovering, I had to learn how to play bass again, and that was the first song I learned.”
Dos is Watt’s still-active project with his ex-wife, former Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler, which sees them both playing bass. There’s also The Missingmen, who have a third album coming out soon. That punk trio’s name is a reference to the fact that, at one early Secondmen gig, neither of Watt’s other two bandmates was able to appear and he had to find fill-ins: Tom Watson and Raul Morales. Watt, never one to take a rest (not since he was forced into bedrest, anyway), has countless other projects on the go, too.
“I’ve been working with people in Italy, and guys in Wales and England,” he says. “I always wanted to work with an English guy, since I was young. We did it by sending our work to each other on the web.”
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Watt might not be currently doing anything as high-profile as The Stooges, with whom he headlined festivals around the world. But whoever he’s writing and performing with, it’s all about the adventure for Watt.
“There are three types of projects,” he says. “The ones where you tell people what to do — write the music and tell them how to play it. Then there are the ones where you join a band and are told what to do, such as J. Mascis & the Fog, or The Stooges. And then there are the collaborations. The thing with the Italian guys is like that. I sent them some stuff with a bunch of holes in it to see how they’d fill them. They’re all different and they’re all adventures. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
Mike Watt is a local treasure. With his early bands, he helped lay the foundations for much of the SoCal punk that was to come later. His work with The Stooges and J. Mascis put him in front of the world’s eyes. And now he’s simply doing what he wants when he wants. There’s a lot of it, so much so that he’s near-impossible to keep up with. But what you do dig up and dive into will undoubtedly be worth the effort.
Mike Watt (and the Secondmen) plays with X, Dave Alvin & The Guilty Ones and Alejandro Excovedo on Wednesday, Nov. 22, at the Novo; with Backbiter and Lawdale on Friday, Nov. 24 (as part of a benefit for Randy Stodola), at Cafe NELA; and with X and Meat Puppets on Saturday, Dec. 23, at the Observatory.